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Steamboat Willie brings New Orleans to campus

For an hour last week, Project Relief brought some of the spirit and magic of New Orleans to the campus. Steamboat Willie, a New Orleans trumpet player visiting Williamsburg, joined College jazz instructor Harris Simon on piano and harmonica, Jordan Ponzi on bass and Dana Fitzsimons (J.D. ’01) on drums in a dazzling performance of Dixieland and old standards. Steamboat’s journey from Louisiana to the campus began a month ago and, not unlike good jazz, is the result of some inspiration, a lot of collaboration and a little serendipity.

When Hurricane Katrina swept away Steamboat’s home and damaged his club on Bourbon Street, he knew he had a choice to make: “When something bad happens, you can sit back and say, ‘Look what happened,’ or you can keep on moving.” So he packed up his car, and he and his fiancée, Teri, and black Lab, Rudy, started moving north, staying with friends and playing at fund-raisers for hurricane relief. That decision to hit the road has not been easy for Steamboat. “I never knew how much I could miss New Orleans before now,” he said. However, it did start him on his path to Williamsburg, where he would reconnect with two old friends and ultimately make countless new ones.

Only a week before the performance, Steamboat’s host, John Williams, contacted the College looking for musicians to join Steamboat in a York County-Poquoson Red Cross fund-raiser on Sept. 25. Williams, an attorney, and his wife, Maxine, own the Old Chickahominy House restaurant. With their offer of temporary haven to Steamboat they suddenly had been recast as event-planners. Libby Covairt, assistant to the chair in the music department, suggested contacting Harris Simon, who immediately lent his—and his trio’s—support.

Williams had read about the students’ efforts to help hurricane victims and wanted to involve them as well—either bringing Steamboat to them or including a student in the fund-raiser—but it seemed impossible on such short notice. Yet it took just one e-mail to the student leaders of Project Relief (they know a good idea when they hear one), and in an amazing feat of creativity and persistence, in spite of midterms, Parents’ Weekend and Steamboat’s schedule, they cut through the bureaucracy and set about bringing Steamboat to campus. Meanwhile, Evan Feldman, director of bands, recommended graduate student Ed Pompeian, a trombonist and member of the jazz band, to play with Steamboat at the Sept. 25 fund-raiser. However, Feldman cautioned that Pompeian was not a professional, so he might not have the time or inclination to take on such a challenge.

He should not have worried.

Pompeian, who is pursuing his master’s degree in American history, has studied the trombone since he was 10 years old. Many musicians fear improvisation, but for Pompeian, it is just another way to communicate: “It’s so appealing to be able to have the conversation you can have because you’re a jazz musician. You just listen to what sounds cool so you can respond or maybe do something similar,” he said.

Pompeian was interested but aware of the potential pitfalls. Although he likes Dixieland’s “high energy,” it was not a style he had ever explored. He liked the idea of playing in a small group, he said, “where it’s clear that your playing is integral to the music” but where there is less room for error. “You can’t space out,” he added. He fretted over whether he would have enough rehearsal time to get comfortable. Finally, he wondered whether he would still have time to finish reading Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution for his class in intellectual history.

Setting aside his doubts, Pompeian agreed to participate. On Saturday afternoon, he was sitting on the Williams’ deck with Steamboat and Rudy, beginning his first conversation in Dixieland jazz.

Steamboat struck him as, “a laid-back, strong but not daunting” person. They tried a few standards like “Amazing Grace” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The pieces that did not quite gel or would have taken too long to fix were discarded. “Steamboat just started teaching … how to accompany him when he did the melody and then fill in during the breaks… almost a call-and-answer kind of thing.” The practice was essential because “you have to have it in your ear before you play” if it is really going to flow naturally. Pompeian left the session with some crib notes and instructions to arrive at Tabb High School at 3 p.m. on Sunday and to look for a big white tent.

Steamboat Willie (r) talks jazz with Pompeian by Kate Hoving

When he arrived at Tabb, Pompeian learned that the start time had been changed to 5 p.m., but just as he settled in with his book, Steamboat called him to the stage—only it was not to join the jazz combo but to accompany what was more of a country group. Pompeian does not remember their first song, except that it was not anything he recognized and definitely not anything they had rehearsed, but his skill and training kicked in. By the time he got to play with the jazz band, everything was copacetic: a couple of up-tempo numbers, a poignant “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” ending with a bluesy “Georgia on My Mind.”

As Pompeian was leaving, Steamboat pointed to him and said, “This one has real talent. But more important than that—no, most important—he has the heart for jazz.”

Did Steamboat’s whirlwind week in Williamsburg change the world? Maybe not. On the surface, life went back to normal. Pompeian missed Steamboat’s concert at the University Center because he was working at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. But, just when it looked as if the only things to come out of Hurricane Katrina were tragedy and loss, Steamboat inspired a group of people—faculty and staff, students and townspeople, musicians and non-musicians, amateurs and professionals—to take some risks, share their time and talents, raise some money (more than $11,000 on Sunday), and showcase some electrifyingly good jazz.

For more information, visit Steamboat Willie's website

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